There are no painters more closely associated with Americana than Norman Rockwell, and Grant Wood. Rockwell’s covers for Look, and The Saturday Evening Post, as well as his illustrations are the images in our collective memory. When we remember Rosie the Riveter, and Ruby Bridges we remember his paintings of them. Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” is, undoubtedly, the most recognizable image in American art. Both men also share the experience of being tossed on the heap of the irrelevant and maudlin, only to be reconsidered by later generations for the darkness in their work that had somehow been missed.
Wood is a satirist, and Rockwell a journalist, but both men had serious critiques to make about American society. In Wood’s hilarious and unsettling “Parson Weems Fable,” he portrays the popular and completely fabricated story of George Washington chopping down the cherry tree. It is blunt-force irony that a story about truth-telling is a lie, and so he paints the story as happening on a stage behind a theatrical curtain. In the painting, little George has the body of a 6-year-old, but the face of the Gilbert Stuart painting on the one-dollar bill. In the background slaves are picking cherries – exposing an even larger lie than Parson Weems’ fib about George’s little hatchet.
In Norman Rockwell’s painting “Freedom from Fear,” part of “The Four Freedoms” series inspired by a Franklin Delano Roosevelt speech, Rockwell paints a couple putting their children to bed. They are a boy and girl, maybe 5 and 7 years old. Mom is tucking in the blanket, and dad is quietly looking down at the kids. The series, painted in 1943, was a vivid reminder of the blessings of being a free people, of why we were fighting. The thing is - the painting is filled with fear. To be a parent is to be afraid for your children, and those fears are clearly on the dad’s face. No wonder – in his hand is a newspaper whose headlines read: “Bombings Kill…./Horror Hits….” On the ground a grey-striped pajama top reminds one of the uniforms Jews wore in the death camps. Even a doll lies on the floor like a corpse. There is no freedom from fear.
Both paintings juxtapose the way things ought to be with the way they are as a protest to their incongruity. That’s fine. We should always take a hard look at the way things are, and strive to make things the way they ought to be. We should never be satisfied with coming up short.
The problem is that we often blame God for this incongruity. The fault is ours. God didn’t invent lying, slavery, or genocide. We did. God makes things the way they are supposed to be. We sin and make them the way they are. When I was a young man preparing myself for ministry I knew I would have to defend the faith (the doctrines of the New Testament), and faith (the existence of God), but I had no inkling that more often than either of these defenses, I would be challenged about the goodness of God.
My only assertion in this little piece is that God is good, and that the way things always fall short of how they ought to be is about us, not about Him. God makes things the way they are supposed to be. We make them the way they are.
Oh taste and see that the LORD is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in Him. Psalm 34.8 ESV
At my first job in Rome, Ohio there were two sisters I used to visit every week. Iva Callicoat and Edna Sowards lived together in Iva’s house just a few blocks from the church building, and I would walk over in the afternoon. They were a real-life Mary and Martha – Iva was practical and wise, Edna was quiet and wise. I learned so much from them. I was really blessed by my first work. I had five elders who were true shepherds, a pulpit minister who wanted (for the most part) to mentor me, and a loving congregation which treasured my wife and me. It was an idyllic situation, and a rare one – especially for the Ohio Valley which is notorious for congregational strife. My home church seemed always to be arguing about something, and split while I was in college. In fact, two generations ago our entire sisterhood of congregations seemed to have that reputation. Members of the churches of Christ seemed always ready to give an answer (or at least engage in debate) but with no gentleness, and little reverence (see I Peter 3.15).
We weren’t like that at the Rome Church of Christ. There were points of controversy now and then, and a few persistent scriptural disagreements, but none that disrupted family harmony. It was amazing to me that a church family could be that way. What we did have at Rome was a long prayer list. Although a large congregation for the area (we averaged around 325 on Sunday mornings) it was an aging congregation. We averaged 15 funerals a year during my time there. It was not unusual to spend three full days visiting hospitals during a work week.
I was commenting on this to Iva and Edna one summer afternoon. I was bemoaning (complaining is probably a more accurate word) the fact that so many were ill and so many had died. “I guess I should be thankful we aren’t fighting amongst ourselves the way most churches are. We just have so many to worry about,” I remarked. “That’s why,” Edna replied. I didn’t understand. “That’s why what?” I asked. “We are so busy worrying and caring for each other that we don’t have time to fight. That’s why,” she explained. Of course, of course, that was indeed why.
I remembered her words this week as I watched the folks who live around Baton Rouge take care of each other. Just a few weeks ago Louisiana was wracked by racial tension. Police shootings, the candidacy of David Dukes, and the presidential campaign seemed to be splitting the state wide open along racial lines. After the Storm-With-No-Name dumped more water on the state than did Hurricane Katrina the citizens of Louisiana now (for a time) seem to identify themselves not as black and white, but as wet.
I have often quoted Fred Rodgers’ advice to children, given in the wake of 9-11 – to “look for the helpers” in any disaster, because they are always there. His words remind us of the truth of the beatitudes. They who mourn are blessed, because they will be comforted.
The challenges we face we have created ourselves. God gave us a garden home, each other, and a perfect relationship with Him. We have ruined it all. We have fouled our planet, fought each other, and forsaken God. He has not forsaken us. What a blessing God has given us – that in the face of the gravest challenges we find the greatest gifts – unity, benevolence, altruism, selflessness, brotherhood, love.
The greatest gift we receive in crisis is experiencing of God’s goodness in the goodness of others. We experience this gift more purely in the wake of crisis, than at any other time. How wonderful that God has arranged for this to be so even in this sinful world we have made. Thanks be to Him in all things.
We were at an amusement park a few weeks ago. It was a day when the heat index was 108 degrees, and so we did a lot of hiding in the shade and going to shows. One of the shows featured country music. The set looked like something left over from a local production of Pump Boys and Dinettes. The talent, college students hired to do three shows a day, was really good. For some reason they had fastened big stiff wigs on all the girl’s heads. It seemed someone had raided Dolly Parton’s closet (or Donald Trump’s). Most of the songs they sang were recent – not what I consider “country” (if I can’t imagine Hank Williams, or Kitty Wells singing it, I’ll pass), but at one point a young woman stepped forward and sang “Coat of Many Colors” by Dolly Parton. The girl’s voice reminded one more of Patty Lupone than Dolly Parton, but “Coat of Many Colors” is a perfect song, and although it was delivered like “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina,” it made me weep – it always does.
I don’t believe anyone has ever written a better song. “Coat of Many Colors” tells the story of Dolly’s mother sewing a coat for her from a box of rags and scraps because she could not afford to buy a new coat. As she sews, Dolly’s mother tells her the story of Joseph, and how he received a coat of many colors because he was special. The story transforms the rag-coat into a love-coat. This alternate reality persists even when the children at school make fun of her rag coat, as she explains defiantly how her coat is special.
I remember when the song was a hit, and seeing my grandmother tear-up any time it came on the radio in the corner-cabinet in her little dining room. Though a child, the song had the same effect on me. Now that I am a grand-parent the song has an even greater effect because it is about the way love can transform anything from ugliness to beauty. We may not be able to avoid hardship and poverty, but love can use any circumstance for its own strength and growth.
The story which transforms the rag-coat into a love-coat is from the Bible of course. Joseph was just a Hebrew boy from a big (albeit prosperous) family – the 11th of 12 sons. But to his father he was special. He was special to God too, and he became one of the most powerful men on earth. It seems every story in the Bible insists that we see things through God’s eyes. Samuel is told that none of the strapping sons of Jesse he has met qualify as king – God wants the boy out in the field tending sheep. Do not look at his appearance or at his height…for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart, God reminds the prophet (I Samuel 16.7).
Jesus, in the beatitudes, seems to invert our whole system of value, telling us that is it a blessing to mourn, to be poor in heart, to be ridiculed and persecuted (Matthew 5.1-12). In fact, the entire story of Jesus turns common notion on its head – God arrives as a new-born baby, and achieves universal victory by being executed as a criminal.
Isn’t it grand that the Bible serves as a pair of blood-colored glasses through which we see the world through the eyes of God. The world, otherwise, is too menacing, too gloomy, too ugly to behold.
In the academy award-winning film Life is Beautiful (1997), actor Roberto Benigni convinces his son that their stay in a Nazi concentration camp is merely a game. He succeeds in shielding his son from the psychological horror of Nazi oppression. He protected his son by getting him to see what was not there. God shows us what is.
The coat of many colors did not make Joseph special, God did. The coat confirmed and expressed reality as God established it. Dolly’s coat of many colors did not make her special, her mother’s love did. God makes that possible too.
I was thumbing through an old issue of Mental Floss magazine the other day and saw, on page 15, a business letter from H. Wilsdorf to Capt. C.J.Nutting. My attention was attracted to it first because of the date – March 30,1943 – which was my mother’s 1st birthday. Then I saw that Captain Nutting was residing at “Gef. Nr.738, Stalag Luft 3.” Captain Nutting was a prisoner of war.
The note was a response to a letter Nutting sent on March 10 informing the Rolex company that his watch, a Chronograph Oyster No. 122, had been taken by his captors, and he would need to replace it. Hans Wilsdorf, a German expatriate living in Geneva was the founder of Rolex. At the time Rolex watches were virtually unknown in the States, but British airmen almost universally wore them because of their accuracy. This became known to American pilots, who brought the brand back with them after the war, and today Rolex is not just the symbol of excellence in timekeeping, but is an icon of excellence generally.
In the note Wilsdorf personally promised to replace the watch at no cost to Captain Nutting. It was the policy of Rolex to guarantee to British airmen that any watch confiscated by German captors would be replaced at no cost. The guarantee was meant to be more than just a promise of replacement. It was supposed to communicate confidence that the allies would ultimately prevail – that things would one day be back to normal. The guarantee was received as such.
We are at war (Ephesians 6.10-20, II Corinthians 10.1-6). We have been given guarantees. We have been guaranteed victory (Romans 8.37, Revelation 3.20). We have been guaranteed an inheritance that cannot be defiled, despoiled, or confiscated (I Peter 1.3-9). We are guaranteed that during the battle we will receive provision, leadership, and protection (Matthew 28.20, II Peter 1.3, Psalm 23).
We have been given an earnest of these guarantees. We have it written down, ink-on-paper. We have the Word of God. And we have more:
In Him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we take possession of it, to the praise of His glory. (Ephesians 1.13-14)
He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.
(II Corinthians 5.5)
When we are baptized we are promised forgiveness and the Holy Spirit (Acts 2.38). He (the Spirit) is described as doing so many things in the New Testament: helping us to pray (Romans 8.26), fostering unity (Ephesians 4.3), doing all that is associated with our sanctification (I Peter 1.2). Paul, in the passages above asserts that when we experience the work of the Spirit, we are reminded of our guarantee – in fact He IS the guarantee of all God has promised.
And so we are reminded to not loose heart. We are reminded that this is all temporary, that victory is assured, and that no one can take these truths away from us.
It is all guaranteed.
The other day I found one sheet of scripture, blown by the wind into my yard. This sheet, which had fallen from a 7” by 5,” thumb-indexed, King James Version of the Bible contained portions of I Chronicles 15-16, and II Chronicles 5-6. It didn’t contain a complete chapter. The I Chronicles passage concerns David bringing the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. The II Chronicles passage details the dedication of the Temple by King Solomon. Of the four pages of scripture contained on this one sheet more than a full page is filled with names of Levites who participated in the parade bringing the Ark to the capital city.
I picked up the sheet, folded it carefully, brought it to the office, and put it in my desk. I could not bring myself to discard it. I cannot throw away a Bible, no matter how damaged it is. I have never discarded a Bible which was mine. Whenever I find one that isn’t salvageable I repair it as best I can and put it in the free bin at the public library. I could no more crumple this sheet and toss it than I could a drawing by my grand-daughter Noelle.
This single sheet of scripture captured my imagination. I wondered what truths I could find in it. “If I was living in some dystopian future,” I thought, “and this was all the Bible left to humanity, what could we learn from it?” Here below, I offer what I found in I Chronicles 15.3-16.5, and II Chronicles 5.12-6.24. I encourage you to repeat my experiment and find the truths I missed.
I never expected to find so many foundational truths from two fragments of I & II Chronicles. The Chronicles have always seemed to me to be the driest part of scripture – filled with data, but lacking the story-teller’s art which so enlivens I and II Kings. I am ashamed of my prejudice. If all we humans had of God’s word was this one sheet of scripture – these fragments of chapters - we would have more truth than anyone could fathom in a lifetime.
We, however, are blessed with the fullness of revealed truth. We have the plan of salvation. We have the promise of heaven. We have the account of the beginning of all things, and the history of that first generation of Christians. We have four gospels which reveal Jesus in the fullness of His glory and grace.
Do we appreciate what we have? Have we tried to fathom even one page of God’s Word?